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US returns to the changing Middle East

U.S. President Joe Biden began his term aiming to disengage from the Middle East, but during his trip to the region a month from now, the Saudi-U.S.-Israeli axis will be at the top of his agenda. He will seek to revive ties with Saudi Arabia – particularly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – on top of efforts to achieve a peace agreement or normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. He also aims to shore up America’s standing in the region as it competes with Russia and China.

But unlike Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” and the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020, Biden isn’t presenting a vision, just policymaking.

His initial disinterest in the Middle East came with the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, and a pronounced indifference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was also seen in Washington’s muscle-flexing with Crown Prince Mohammed, its suspension of a deal to sell F-35 jets to the UAE, and its punishment of Egypt for human rights violations.

It also included the long-standing rift with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a cold attitude toward then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But now Biden has to address all these issues – and it’s unclear whether a new nuclear agreement will be signed with Iran, and if so, when. Plus, Washington doesn’t seem to have an alternative strategy if there is no agreement.

The media reports in recent weeks about closer Saudi-Israeli ties have naturally made the Saudi-Israeli axis the center of attention in Israel and the Arab world. But the Saudi-Israeli warming is just one major development that has taken place in the region without the United States' input, creating a new diplomatic reality.

Examples include the renewal of UAE-Turkish relations and Saudi-Turkish ties. Also, Ankara’s relations are warmer with Israel and Egypt, and Riyadh and Tehran have held talks on restoring ties. All this is part of these countries’ strategy to reduce their reliance on the United States, or at least ditch their reputation as countries that will always take the Americans’ position.

An example of this is Riyadh's policy of establishing broad economic ties with Moscow and Beijing; the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, called China his country’s most important economic ally. Saudi Arabia isn't a party to the Western sanctions on Russia, and Crown Prince Mohammed has been in no hurry to agree to boost Saudi oil output to reduce world oil prices and curb the impact of Russia's war on Ukraine.

Turkey has badly slowed Finland and Sweden's joining of NATO, poking Washington in the eye as the Americans strive to present a united front against Russian President Vladimir Putin. For its part, Israel has made clear that it's not bound by any new nuclear agreement with Iran.

At the same time, this isn’t an integrated system where a Saudi-U.S. warming directly affects Washington’s ties with Turkey or Egypt. Instead, there are three separate tracks. In the first, each country in the region manages its interests vis-à-vis every other one; in the second, vis-à-vis the United States; and in the third, vis-à-vis other world powers such as Russia and China.

On the Israeli-Saudi axis, covert ties have been pursued for many years. Officials from the two countries have met numerous times to discuss strategic cooperation and the forging of an anti-Iranian coalition, with Israel as an undeclared member.

Over the past month, there have been reports on Saudi Arabia agreeing to directly invest in Israeli companies via Affinity Partners, the firm of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. There have also been reports that dozens of Israeli businesspeople have visited Saudi Arabia and signed deals worth millions of dollars – with Israeli tourists traveling freely around the kingdom.

And then there's Barak Ravid’s report on Axios that Washington is working on a Saudi-Israeli deal for finalizing the transfer of sovereignty over two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

In 2016, Cairo and Riyadh agreed on the transfer of control, but due to legal obstacles, and especially protests against the move in Egypt, final approval was only given in 2018. The question of the presence of a multinational force on the islands, which is required by Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, is at the center of the talks between Israel and the Saudis. In fact, the step would require an amendment to the 1979 Camp David Accords, but Israel, which has not expressed opposition to the transfer, isn’t expected to present any obstacles.

Israel would want to ensure that the islands are demilitarized and subject to international oversight. And it would probably agree to the Saudis' demand that no multinational force be present on Tiran and Sanafir.

Israel and the United States hope to leverage the issue to create a direct diplomatic channel between Jerusalem and Riyadh, and perhaps achieve a normalization of ties, even if it falls short of a full peace agreement.

Saudi Arabia has its own demands, but they don’t have anything to do with Israel.

Crown Prince Mohammed, who is preparing to succeed his father, seeks to rehabilitate his reputation with the United States and other countries around the world after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Prince Mohammed has become persona non grata in the United States; he has no ties in Congress and has yet to speak with Biden since the 46th president took office.

The assumption is that Saudi Arabia would agree to a double normalization – with the United States and Israel. Representatives of Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett are working on the issue. So far there has been no news of an agreement in principle either by Riyadh or Washington.

In March, Crown Prince Mohammed told The Atlantic: “We do not view Israel as an enemy, but rather as a potential ally.” Prince Faisal, the foreign minister, said last week that “normalization between the region and Israel will bring benefits, but we won’t be able to reap those benefits unless we are able to address the issue of Palestine.”

That's more or less the standard condition that the Saudis have demanded since the days of the Arab peace initiative in 2002. But when it comes to peace, the fruit has a different price depending on the season, and flexibility is always an inseparable part of foreign policy.

Zvi Bar'el